girl princess

Origins of narcissism in children: a critique, Part II


You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
As I wrote in Part I of this three part series, the media-parenting world was all a-twitter (both in the old-fashioned and the wired sense of the word) about a new study out of Amsterdam purporting to answer the question of the origins of narcissism in children. The study authors concluded that while parental warmth (as reported by the children) correlated highly with self-esteem in children, it was parental overvaluation that correlated most highly with narcissism in children. Last time, we looked at how the media had misinterpreted an already flawed study to make some rather Puritanical–and false–claims. Today’s post turns to the more nuanced, but also problematic, study itself. Keep an eye out for Part III, where we will turn to what we already know about how not to raise a narcissist.

The study, “Origins of Narcissism in Children” suffers from a fatal flaw: it defines narcissism solely in terms of its outward presentation without addressing the inner-life of a narcissist. The study’s decision to use this fully externalized definition of narcissism (in essence, buying into the narcissist’s façade) circumscribes their study design and their interpretations of their data, thereby limiting the persuasiveness of their conclusions.

The contradictions inherent in the study’s definition of narcissism reflect the problem. The authors write: “Narcissists feel superior to others, fantasize about personal successes, and believe they deserve special treatment. When narcissists feel humiliated, they are prone to lash out aggressively or even violently. Narcissists are also at increased risk for mental health problems, including drug addiction, depression and anxiety,” (p. 1).

If a person honestly feels superior to others, why would s/he be more prone to anxiety and depression? If a narcissist really thinks s/he’s fabulous, why would they have a violent reaction to humiliation?

Clearly, something is rotten in the internal state of the narcissist. It is the internal feeling of worthlessness, the sense that all strengths and positive qualities are actually part of a sham, part of that protective persona, and that if anyone saw beneath that false self, they would despise and abhor the real person. The study author’s choice not to acknowledge the dual-nature of narcissism hamstrings their study from the beginning.

John William Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus

John William Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus

The inner core of narcissism: not a pretty picture
It is difficult not to think of the myth of Narcissus when we think about Narcissism. Picture a beautiful young man, so in love with his own image reflected in the water that he cannot tear himself away, even for food and drink, and either dies or transforms into a flower, depending on which version of the myth you favor. Narcissus is often taken as iconic of extreme self-love, and narcissism as an embodiment of that love. Note, however, that Narcissus is taken with his image only–the idealized outer appearance with no depth, no human limitations or frailties, no reality. Not only is he obsessed with this false reflection of himself, he does not even recognize it as his own reflection. His obsession with his persona from which he is alienated destroys him. The Narcissus myth is not about genuine self-love, but about love of an empty shell, a persona, and how it pulls a person away from his true self, from real relationships in the real world, and from life itself.

The dark side of the Narcissus myth more accurately reflects the lived experience of a narcissist more than the simple image of a beautiful young man in love with himself. According to the Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM Task Force, 2006), “The characteristic subjective experience of narcissistic individuals is a sense of inner emptiness and meaninglessness that requires recurrent infusions of external confirmation of their importance and value,” (emphasis mine, p. 38). Any definition of narcissism is incomplete without addressing the symptomatic, troubled core underneath the more recognizable bravado and bullying.

Stephen M. Johnson, PhD writes in Character Styles that at the core of a narcissist is a “deep wound to the experience of the real self,” (p. 155). In Children of the Self-Absorbed, Nina W. Brown describes this inner core as an “impoverished or needy state,” and writes that no matter how grandiose a narcissist acts, “this person always has underlying feelings of worthlessness, inferiority, being threatened, danger and being unsafe, fear and anxiety,” (p. 94). It is the painful vulnerability and shame associated with the inner experience of narcissism that makes a narcissist more prone to depression, anxiety and drug abuse. The PDM explains:

When the narcissistic individual succeeds in extracting…confirmation in the form of status, admiration, wealth, and success, he or she feels an internal elation, often behaves in a grandiose manner, and treats others…with contempt. When the environment fails to provide such evidence, narcissistic individuals typically feel depressed, shamed, and envious of those who succeed in attaining the supplies they lack. Their lack of pleasure in either work or love can be painful to witness, (p. 38).

The core of narcissism is a feeling of worthlessness, shame and self-hatred. Feelings of superiority are simply some of the most visible outward signs of narcissism. The more blustering with arrogance a person is, the more terrible they feel about themselves.

I am having trouble understanding why a scientific, psychological study of narcissism would choose to ignore this key component.

The grandiose persona as protection
The “bipolar” swings from feeling grandiose to feeling worthless are one of the hallmarks of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and its related spectrum (Brown, p. 94). For a narcissist, there are only two choices of how to feel: grandiose or worthless. There is no grey. There is no good enough. Thus, they put an enormous amount of energy into protecting those grandiose feelings. This is why humiliation–to which they are exquisitely sensitive–leads to lashing out or violence. Johnson explains: “Much, if not all, of [the narcissist’s] surface presentation, both to himself and others, is compensation for that injury [to his core sense of self],” (p. 155). In other words, the narcissist creates their grandiose persona as a walking bomb-shelter to protect their vulnerable inner core.  So, they act superior to others and cannot brook any criticism or admit any weakness or mistake.

I’m in high school and the family is playing Trivial Pursuit around the kitchen table. My mother gets the question, “What does UNICEF stand for?” I can’t remember what she says, but it is not “United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund,” the correct answer. According to her? The card is wrong! The fact-checkers of Trivial Pursuit are failures.

For additional protection, narcissists become excellent projectors in order to deflect all criticism from themselves. It is as if their grandiose bomb-shelter persona is covered in Teflon, or that they have mastered that old childhood comeback, “I am rubber, you are glue. Whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you!” Any event that might make them feel bad about themselves is someone else’s fault. Any feeling they have that is less than ideal is caused by someone else’s failure. You ask for something they cannot give, and suddenly you are too needy. You get angry with them, and you have anger management issues. You are hurt by something they did, and darn you and your over-sensitive nature (Johnson, McBride).

I’m in college and my sister has just gotten married. My mother asked her at the wedding whether she was going to change her name, to which my feminist sister said no. A few weeks later, my mother sends her a congratulations card, addressed to Mrs. [husband’s first name] [husband’s last name.] After a heated phone exchange with no resolution, my mother turns to me, sniffling, and says, “I was always worried that the schizophrenia in my first husband’s family might affect one of the kids. I thought it might be your older brother, but now I see it is probably your sister.” My other sister, upon hearing this story, tells me that the accusation of “schitziness” landed almost all of the children at one point or another on –whichever one was “inexplicably” angry with her at the time.

Internally, narcissists are so terrified of being found out and therefore swinging from that comfortable, safe place of grandiosity to that painful place of worthlessness, that they will invest all their psychic energy in maintaining their narcissistic façade, no matter the consequences or the price to them or those around them.

So, about how these narcissists are created
The Origins study purports to explain the cause of narcissism in children. It offers two hypotheses for examination: the social learning theory that children learn the view of themselves as over-valuable from their parents overvaluing of them; and what they call the psychoanalytic theory that narcissism stems from lack of parental warmth.

I find this portrayal of the psychoanalytic theory to be almost a straw man argument. In my reading about narcissism, not one source suggests simple lack of parental warmth as its cause.

Interestingly, the authors write “adult narcissists are more likely than non-narcissists to remember their parents as overvaluing and lacking warmth in childhood,” (emphasis mine, p. 1). The study attempts to tease apart which of these parental attributes really leads to narcissism, as if the cause were either one or the other; in fact, it is more likely to be the combination of the two. The study also assumes that overvaluing or lack of warmth is the primary cause of narcissism in children, when in fact both qualities, when taken together, are symptoms that indicate the real cause of narcissism in children: parental narcissism.

Narcissists beget narcissists
Narcissists are made, not born–although there may be some genetic predispositions towards narcissism (Mothers Who Can’t Love: A Healing Guide for Daughters, Susan Forward). Psychologists talk about a narcissistic injury so deep and profound that it leads to the creation of the false, grandiose persona split off from the symptomatic self that feels worthless. Stephen Johnson explains “[E]ssentially [the narcissistic injury] occurs when the environment needs the individual to be something substantially different from what he or she really is. Essentially, the message to the emerging person is, ‘Don’t be who you are, be who I need you to be. Who you are disappoints me, threatens me, overstimulates me. Be what I want and I will love you,” (p. 156).

To put it simply, children grow up to be narcissists when

1) They are not seen and appreciated for who they are

2) Their basic emotional needs are not met consistently by their parents

3) They get recruited to take care of the emotional needs of their parents

What type of parent would not be able to recognize a child for who they are, not prioritize their child’s emotional needs, but instead prioritize their own emotional needs? Well, a narcissist.

The study foresees this interpretation of its data, but and writes that “further analysis” shows this not to be true. However, this almost throwaway line is not backed up by research cited in the study itself. In fact, the methodology section, where the authors list the instruments (surveys) they use to collect their data, they do not include any instrument to judge whether the parents are narcissists or not. Reading their article closely, their dismissal of this common psychological explanation for narcissism rings false.

Trapped in the mirror
Because narcissists have built a persona in order to deal with the world, rather than an authentic self, they have a great deal of difficulty relating to people as full human beings, rather than objects or instruments (as it versus Thou if you are a Buber fan). Not surprising, they lack empathy for others as well. This makes it difficult to see, much less appreciate, their children for who they are.

Iconic narcissistic mother Joan Crawford, her daughter and her portrait

Iconic narcissistic mother Joan Crawford, her daughter and her portrait

Narcissistic parents values their children insofar as the children reflect well on them and their parenting. This is so common that one of the classic books on my NPD bookshelf is titled Trapped in the Mirror.  Since the narcissist is invested not just in being good enough, but in the grandiose achievement of superiority or even perfection, they want their children to reflect this larger-than-life ideal as well. Thus, overvaluing. In Stephen Johnson’s words, “The child is used to mirror, to aggrandize, or fulfill the ambitions and ideals of the parent,” (p. 45).

The study authors ignore this dual-nature of narcissistic parenting. When narcissistic parents overvalue their child, it is not actually because, as they write, the “children are seen by their parents as more special and more entitled than other children,” (p. 2). It is because narcissists cannot actually see and appreciate their children for who they are with all their human limitations, which would imply parental limitations or–gasp!–faults, but must inflate them through the same lens of grandiosity with which they inflate themselves (see Part I for more details).

And certainly, the children of narcissists are finely attuned enough to their parents to recognize this lack of genuine appreciation coupled with grandiose overvaluing. As Johnson writes “the budding narcissist…who cannot get well-attuned prizing from caretaking figures by his natural self-expression, will identify the image of himself that these caretakers require for their own purposes, and he will do everything in his power to live up to it,” (p. 10). Thus, the grandiose false self is born.

In a classic double bind, narcissists want their children to be amazing and extraordinary and spectacular, but not enough to overshadow them, (Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers, Karyl McBride, PhD, p. 22).

I am 18 and finishing up a very exciting, successful summer internship at a newsroom in Albuquerque, my hometown. I have invited my parents to come see where I have been working during the summer and to meet my bosses, mentors and colleagues. One of the directors, a shy, soft-spoken man, says quietly to my mother, “Your daughter is really something.” I blush slightly, pleased he has taken the time to praise me to my mother. She smiles (the memory of which still tightens my stomach) and says, “She gets it from me.”

Needing more than a narcissist can provide
Children need their parents. For everything. That’s part of what you sign up for when you become a parent: a little bundle of joy who literally cannot live without you. But narcissists don’t have a huge well of emotional reserve. And they hate to be found wanting. Consequently, narcissistic parents will not always (or often) be able to meet the emotional needs of their child. To add insult to injury, they will project their failure back on the child, as they project all their bad feelings onto those around them. As crazy-making as their Teflon tendency is for the adults in their lives, it is devastating for their children. The children not only learn that their emotional needs will only sometimes be met, but also that those needs are wrong, overwhelming and shameful.  Karyl McBride explains, “Narcissistic mothers are often critical and judgmental because of their own fragile sense of self. They use their daughters as scapegoats for their bad feelings about themselves, and blame them for their own unhappiness and insecurity, (p. 30). The child’s needs become proof that they are fundamentally, at core, a bad person. And if that reminds you of the feeling at the core of a narcissist, you win the grand prize.

Counter-intuitively, narcissistic parents are often quite attentive with an infant. The infant provides the parent with the security of melding and of complete and total acceptance and adoration that she longs for, as well as offering lots of photo-ops to prove what a good parent he is (McBride, Donaldson-Pressman & Pressman). But when the infant turns into a little one who starts pushing back, saying no, struggling for independence? Watch out! It is hard for narcissists to see that pushing as a natural and valuable phase of individuation. They take it personally, feel rejected, and often respond with anger. The struggle for autonomy repeats itself in the teen years. These can be especially tumultuous with a narcissistic parent, who interprets typical teen rebellion as treachery of the highest order.

And here the child of a narcissist finds herself in yet another double bind: don’t need anything from me that I cannot easily give you, but don’t be independent either.

A child to take care of (me)
Since narcissists beget narcissists, narcissistic parents were once the powerless child-victims of narcissistic parents. Those parents did not meet their emotional needs and wounded them. The inner-core of narcissists, the part that feels worthless and vulnerable, is that child-victim. Because they never had their needs met as children, they still wander the world, hungry for someone to take care of them.

Enter their children.

Finally, they have someone who will love them unconditionally, will listen to them, and will do whatever it takes to make them happy. In other words, the child becomes the stand-in parent, often referred to as the parentified child (The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment, Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman & Robert Pressman). The overwhelming needs of the narcissistic parents blind them to the needs of their children.

I’m 26. My father has just died of cancer. My mother has been on the phone all day with various newspapers, calling around to alert them that former New Mexico senator Sterling Black has died (the fact that he was Senator a full thirty years earlier being the reason she has to explain to them why this is worth more than your average obituary). I am exhausted and numb. This is before the era of the ubiquitous cell phone, so when I hear her finish talking, I call my boyfriend in Indiana. She gets on the other phone to tell me to get off the phone immediately because members of the press may be calling back. I tell her I need to talk to my boyfriend for some support, and she says, “You forget that my husband just died!”

Generational infinite loop

Intergenerational loop

Of course, you can see how this becomes a generational infinite loop, like the images stretching into the distance when two mirrors face each other. A parent cannot meet the emotional needs of his child and instead uses the child to meet his. The child then grows up unable to meet the emotional needs of her child and instead uses the child to meet her needs. And on and on.

McBride points out that a narcissistic mother’s needs often are expressed in recruiting her child to act as her best friend. “With their own daughters, they have a captive audience, a built-in source for the attention, affection, and love they crave. As a result, they often relate to their children as friends rather than offspring, using them to prop themselves up and meet their emotional needs. Sometimes being a supportive friend to her mother is the only way for the daughter to get positive strokes from Mom,” (p. 32).

I am 27. My father has been dead for a year, and my mother is talking to me about the man she is dating. She starts to tell me about a particular romantic encounter she had with him. When I stop her, she pouts slightly and says, “I forget you just don’t want us to be friends, no matter how hard I try.” This is not the first time we have had almost the exact same exchange. My mother started trying to “be friends” with me (read, recruit me to substitute for her best friend) by sharing details of her sex life when I was maybe 14 years old.

In fact, according to McBride, one of the key aspects of a narcissistic adult is that they never accept that the roles have now changed, and rather than living in the child-victim role, they are in fact in the parent-victimizer role. If a narcissist can fully own their current adult, powerful position, they can begin to work on not repeating the narcissistic injury with their own children. Sadly, they usually cannot.

Being a good enough parent
A parent wrote me in response to Part I of this series, “There are so many “yes’s” and “no’s” for parenting today based on all these studies it can make a mom’s head spin.” Studies like The Origins of Narcissism in Children, and especially their wonky, puritanical media coverage, can be bewildering and leave parents feeling confused, criticized and even damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Let me try to put your mind to rest, at least in regards to raising a narcissist.

If you are lucky enough to have been raised by “good enough” parents (in the words of D. W. Winnicott) rather than narcissists, then you are blessed. You escaped a lot of pain and suffering growing up. More importantly in terms of being a parent, you probably don’t have narcissistic tendencies in your own child-rearing practices. Reading through this series on how not to raise narcissistic children, I hope you are able to sigh with relief and think, “Well, gosh, I make some mistakes as a parent, but I don’t do that stuff!” If you recognize some pieces of narcissistic parenting as something you do, you will probably be able to reflect and change.  Ironically, if you are worried you may be a narcissist, you probably aren’t and if you are a narcissist, you most likely won’t believe you are. I hope that you will continue to authentically praise your children without worrying if this seemingly innocent and encouraging behavior is warping them.

If you were raised by a narcissist, you have my deepest sympathy. I know it was painful and difficult for you; I’ve been there. It takes a lot of energy to heal. The more narcissistically wounded you were, then the harder it is to even admit you need healing, much less do the difficult work that recovery takes. But you have the best reason in the world to do the work: your own children.

I have seen adults talk with tears in their eyes about what was done to them as a child, and then turn around and do the same to their own children (or students, for that matter).  If you have a nagging feeling that this may be you, the biggest shift to make is to realize that you may feel like a small, scared, powerless child inside, but you are now the grown-up. If you can recognize that you now hold the power with your children, that you have moved from powerless child to powerful adult, you will be on the path to doing what your parents and their parents and–who knows how far back it goes–couldn’t do: stop the cycle, and raise genuinely self-confident, self-assured kids.

My Narcissistic Personality Disorder bookshelf